In a sonic universe fragmented into downloaded MP3 song files and store-bought compact discs, the advent of new technology and new music formats gives prospective buyers of sound equipment another set of lifestyle choices. Increasingly, consumers are defining themselves not only by what they listen to, but what they use to play their favorite tunes. While most music these days is heard while driving in a car or through headphones connected to iPods and portable CD players, dedicated audiophiles and fans of high-tech equipment are using the emergence of digitally stored music players as an opportunity to reconfigure other parts of their home-entertainment systems, particularly the audio side, says Brent Butterworth, editor of the luxury goods magazine The Robb Report Home Entertainment. "When you have a change in technology, more people want to have something to upgrade to," he says. "We're going to be looking at a lot of turnover for stereo systems on both the high end and the low end." He says the arrival of portable or home digital music servers is prompting many buyers to shift from $100 boom boxes to $500 stereo systems or a carefully matched group of components that deliver excellent sound for about $1,200 -- though it's always possible to spend more. "It's a little like buying a car," Butterworth says. "Some people want that little bit more for themselves. It's not just about good sound. Some people want to have something they can show off." Audio purists say a really good stereo system relies on the same basic components: an integrated amplifier (or preamplifier and amplifier) to power the system, a compact disc player, or a digital music server if you play MP3 files, and, most importantly, a pair of great speakers.
The Best Buy's Not Always Before Your Eyes
You don't need to be a concert pianist to know the difference between good sound and great sound, but a few tips will keep you from hitting a sour note when you buy a new stereo. Set a budget, look around for a store with good service and always bring along your favorite music when you shop.